By Paula Frost
Title: All the world’s a stage…
Ever seen a clown who blasts cocaine out of his flower, tells harrowing stories and bludgeons himself in the head? NOFX frontman and bassist Fat Mike has been the punk scene’s class clown since 1983 and now he’s made it official with his first solo album as Cokie The Clown. He puts raw, emotional true stories about his life on stage whilst dressed as a sad clown and playing acoustic guitar. Cokie The Clown first blew up the press in 2010 when he played SXSW and was one of the most talked about performances of the entire festival. Fucked Up lead singer Damian described the set as “the most depressing and fucked up thing I have ever seen”.
Before our interview I’d been warned by the record label that he might be a total nightmare, and in true Fat Mike fashion he wasn’t answering his phone when I called. I got through to NOFX band manager Steve Garrett made famous in the documentary Backstage Passport where he gets too drunk to function on tour and is seen doubling up as the groups sound man. He told me they had just flown over to the UK to play two shows for Slam Dunk Festival and Mike had suffered a rude welcome to England when someone had stolen his phone in a Chinese restaurant. Steve ran to Mike’s trailer to wake him up but he wasn’t budging and had been up all night partying so the call ended there with a promise they’d be in touch later. I wasn’t holding my breath but around half hour later the phone rang. “Hello my name is Mike and I’ve been told to call you about my ongoing medical condition.” Hallelujah, it was him. He spoke about his phone situation. “Yeah it was quite a good robbery. I was at a Chinese restaurant and I fell for the old ‘guy coming in pointing at a map’ trick. My phone was on the table. He nicked it pretty good. No one got hurt. I got to finish my meal without noticing.”
We got down to the new album. ‘You’re Welcome’ leaves nothing off limits lyrically; from finding a flat mate who’d committed suicide (‘Bathtub’), to overdosing his own mother (‘That Time I Killed My Mom’). “Yes, I’m being totally honest on that album.” Mike said, admitting all the stories were true. His favourite track to play live is: “‘Bathtub’, we opened the show with it recently and I’ve never seen anything like it. 600 people in a club and you can’t hear one sound. Everybody is deadly quiet as I explain what the song’s about and why it happened before I start and it freaks people out because it’s a true story.”
I asked why he didn’t want to use these lyrics for NOFX. “I thought it would be too much of a bummer. I just had a vision of an album. I’d done a couple of Cokie The Clown shows and I was playing NOFX songs on acoustic guitar and telling stories between songs about some of my bad times. I just wanted to sing those songs because I’ve never seen anyone do that before and that’s what I’m interested in – stuff that no-ones done before. I think I accomplished it. I don’t think there’s another record like it out there. Mike explained why he invented Cokie The Clown to front his honest lyrics. “Because so many bands and singers go off to do their own side project and its, I think, kinda boring. It’s usually just someone playing acoustic guitar. I wanted to do something different. I also wanted to do something that had some stand-up comedy in it and some tragedy. It’s difficult playing those shows, it’s very taxing on my emotions.” Mike said that although he hadn’t got in any trouble for the lyrical content of his album yet, people were worried about him. “Should we be worried?” I asked. “Of course. Well, I’m not going to kill myself. That would be crazy. My life’s too fun to do that. But I might fall off a bike or something so you can worry about me. I tend to be kind of a klutz. I sprained my ankle once, that could happen, but nothing worse than that.”
Cokie The Clown’s album ‘You’re Welcome’ was released via Fat Wreck Chords earlier this year alongside first single ‘Punk Rock Saved My Life’ and a controversial video where ‘Cokie’ spends over a minute clubbing himself in the head with an oversized mallet. Danny Lohner produced the LP, he has worked with A Perfect Circle and Nine Inch Nails. The record also has Blink 182’s Travis Barker on drums and Dizzy Reed of Guns n’ Roses on keyboards. Mike told me how Barker’s entourage had challenged him, “I was saying: “try playing like this or like that.” And his crew said, “People don’t usually tell him (Travis) what to do.” I said: “What are you talking about? I’ve known him forever!” NOFX guitarist Melvin mentioned in the past that he felt Blink 182 ripped off NOFX’s style with their comedy punk element. I put it to Mike: “I don’t think musically they did but comedy-wise maybe they did. But you know they had a routine and said the same things every night. And sometimes they are quite funny but that’s not what we do. We say different shit every night and play different songs.”
Mike’s story goes way back, he went to his first punk shows in LA in the early ‘80s and was surrounded by violence, drugs and depravity from 13-years-old. Stimulated by the scene’s chaotic energy, brutality and rebelliousness, he started his first band False Alarm in ’82 and the following year formed NOFX alongside guitarist Eric Melvin.
Over the years he’s produced, played and toured tons of punk projects and lent a hand in so many band’s careers it’s too many to recount. In 1990 Mike started DIY punk label Fat Wreck Chords, which has been home to Descendents, Less Than Jake, Against Me!, Snuff and Anti-Flag alongside so many others. The label has released over 160 punk albums. Mike also plays bass in the punk rock super group cover band Me First and the Gimme Gimmes and this year he’s revealed plans to bring his punk rock musical project to London’s theatre scene. “Boy, I spent a lot of money on my musical ‘Home Sweet Home’. Over the past ten years I spent more money on that than a house. But we’re opening in London in April 2020 at The Pleasant Theatre. I’ve been working on it for 20 years. It’s probably the best thing I’ve ever done.”
Last year NOFX released a tell-all book of their memoirs ‘NOFX: The Hepatitis Bathtub’. It was a debouched account of their messed up lives covering everything from drug addiction to sexual assault, a lot of death and tough family lives. Mike said of the book, “People think we’re a little bit cooler of a band since the book came out. It’s weird how everyone in the band has interesting stories in their lives. You know the guy who wrote ‘The Dirt’? The Mötley Crüe guy? He contacted us and said “I think you guys out-dirted ‘The Dirt’!” I told Mike how after everything they’d been through it was amazing everyone was still alive and the band was still going. “We’re the luckiest people ever and there’s no fighting between us. We all get along great. Clearly our drummer wins on having the craziest life.” Smelly was a heroin addict for many years but has turned his life around and been clean since 1992 and adopted a daughter. Mike said, “Hey I’ve turned my life around too! For the worse.” In the early days of NOFX Mike never touched drugs and just stuck to booze but that changed later in life and he started using pain pills and ecstasy. “All I know is I just didn’t want to back then.” Mike said. “I had a very successful business by the time I was 27. Fat Records sold 5 million dollars worth of records by then. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I didn’t use drugs and was successful.” One of the things that came to light in the band’s book was how good of a businessman Mike is. There were times when members of NOFX would invest their money and lose it. Erik tried to run a coffee shop and El Hefe had his own venue, both were run into the ground and mounted up a lot of debt. Mike was always there warning them. “I’m just smarter than the rest of the band. I was a mentally gifted minor. I skipped a grade and I finished college. I kind of win at everything I do. I was a professional poker player for a while and I have a different mind from a lot of people. I think I’m a little autistic. I’ve never wasted my money. I was in the stock market for many years. I came out a little above even. Every time I’ve bought real estate I’ve done pretty well.” Of avoiding drugs in the early days he added: “I needed to hold the band together. They say your brain develops until you’re 28. You know what’s the worst thing for you? Fucking pot. So it’s weird that governments keep making it legal when it makes your society stupider. Alcohol and heroin don’t make you stupider.”
We rewound to speak about the LA punk scene in the ‘80s. The band’s book was a massive insight to the scene as there isn’t much written about it. It was so dangerous and I asked what kept him going back to gigs. “We didn’t know any different. We didn’t know it was dangerous, we just thought that was what punk rock was. You’d see people get hospitalised every show. That was part of the excitement. LA was a dangerous place anyway; the punk scene was just extra dangerous.” There were vicious criminal gangs on the scene who incited violence and rioting and would even gang rape people. I asked if Mike ever got close to joining a gang. “Three times I was asked to join a gang, yeah. Suicidal, Circle One gang and FFF. But I would stay neutral. It was strange because I’d go out with some friends and they’d all get beaten up but I wouldn’t. I just kind of whistled and walked away. I’m not gunna fight if it’s 10 on 1. It happened so often and there wasn’t a reason. It’s not like we were fighting for a cause. That’s why I left LA in ‘85 and moved to San Francisco.”
Although none of them joined gangs (except the pranking alcoholic gang Dog Patch Winos), the band were usually on the wrong side of the law. Once they broke into a van and stole a suitcase which happened to belong to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Fat Mike said the Chili Peppers never knew who broke into the van until the NOFX book came out which read “we opened the case to find a hat with a whale sticking out of it, an American flag kilt, some leather wader pants… these were the outfits the Chili Peppers had worn in all their promo photos and on stage for their whole ‘Freaky Styley’ tour.” Mike added, “Did I say what happened to the leather waders that I got? My girlfriend turned it into a bondage hood.”
After nearly 25 years of senseless antics, Mike and the band did have one value that they’d always upheld and that was never to sell out. They stayed true to their punk DIY ethos remaining independent whilst bands from their scene like Blink 182 and Green Day signed to major labels. NOFX turned the heads of the American music industry when they forged a path of their own with independent distribution and sold half a million copies of ‘Punk in Drublic’ without radio airplay within six years of its release in 1994. Previously they had been offered a major record deal with Hollywood Records which they turned down. Mike admitted, “I don’t think we would have got more popular. I don’t think we’re a band who can get popular that way. But I think it was one of the best decisions I ever made. I always think four or five moves ahead with everything I do, ever. My whole life is a game of chess. I didn’t see us winning. I didn’t think my voice was good enough and I don’t think we would have played the game very well.”
Finally, I asked after all these years what kept him coming back to write more songs and keep touring. “In our case it’s because there’s no rules and you can write about any subject you want. What keeps me coming back is; punk’s got the coolest people in it, it’s the best kind of music by far, most interesting lyrics and most interesting people who refuse to be rockstars.” He has made a career out of being everyone’s loveable fuck up and for that he deserves a salute. Fat Mike brings his punk rock musical to London in 2020.
“I always think four or five moves ahead with everything I do, ever.”
“LA was a dangerous place anyway; the punk scene was just extra dangerous.”
“In punk there’s no rules and you can write about any subject you want.”